Notes from The Painter’s Handbook 1: Oil painting supports

(Disclaimer: This post is not intended to be an exhaustive report on all the support options available to artists; you should do your own research and arrive at solutions that fit your particular goals for the longevity of your work.)

oilpaintingsupports What’s some of the current thinking on the best way to “build” a durable, long-lasting painting?

If you’re more than a “Sunday painter”, these questions matter to you. I’m serious about my art and I’d like to think that it’ll be around and intact long after I am. Although we all settle into doing certain things in certain ways, time (not to mention science) marches on. Sometimes we don’t realize that a better mousetrap has been invented while we weren’t looking.

I recently ran into trouble with a painting I’m working on, a landscape with a great blue heron flying across a wetland. All seemed well until I returned to the heron for a second “pass” after the initial block in. Following the traditional rule of “fat over lean”, I applied a slightly thinned layer of lighter paint on the upper wing of the bird. I then decided it was a bit much, and wiped some of it off. To my dismay, the underpainting – which had been drying for about two weeks – came off with it! Yikes!

I suddenly had a “weak paint film” problem! This was certainly a new problem for me; one reason I like to let my underpainting dry thoroughly before continuing is so I can wipe off mistakes and get back to my original foundation instead of piling on paint layers one after another in a muddy mess. This had always worked fine.

So, as we all do these days, I “hit the internet” to see what I’d done differently that might have caused this. As I searched, one question led to another and I found myself reviewing my entire process. I am happy to say that my basic approach is still sound, but there are some minor improvements that I’ll be adopting, since I believe in science over tradition. (And I do now know where I made my mistake on the heron painting. More on that later.)

Way back when I was in college, I bought a copy of The Artist’s Handbook of Materials & Techniques by Ralph Mayer. While I still own it, my edition was published in 1970. As science goes, that makes it ancient history, so I could no longer rely on that. In my Googling, I ran across the excellent AMIEN (Art Materials Information and Education Network) site. I spent an entire evening searching the forums, which were jam-packed with questions and good solid answers, but in the end, my head was spinning. So I opted to buy the book by AMIEN’s founder, Mark Gottsegen, titled The Painter’s Handbook (2006). This book is also a terrific resource for painters using many media – not just oils – so even if you’re not an oil painter, you still should seriously consider purchasing it.

Be aware that there is a lot of outdated and incorrect information regarding painting supports and grounds floating around on the internet. That’s why it’s best to stick with recent sources written by experts in the art materials and art conservation fields. What follows are notes gleaned from The Painter’s Handbook as related to my goals as an oil painter, starting with the foundation: supports. Basically, it’s a review of my current practices (which I can happily say, are pretty sound), but I learned a few things as well. You may too.

Supports for Oil Paintings

  • The most important structural component of a painting
  • Should age without becoming brittle
  • Should expand, contract, or warp as little as possible with atmospheric changes so it doesn’t cause undue stress to the paint film above it.
  • Should have a good texture for the painting to adhere or “key” to
  • Solid supports are far superior to flexible (fabric or paper) supports
  • Of the commonly used solid supports, tempered hardboard (which used to be referred to as Masonite, although that company no longer makes it) still appears to be the better choice among wood-based products, because it’s very resistant to warping, moisture and mechanical damage.
  • There are cored aluminum sheets that appear to have promise as supports for acrylic paintings, but the author stops short of recommending them for oil paintings.
  • Flexible (paper or fabric) supports are vulnerable due to their constant movement in response to atmospheric changes
  • Paper should not be considered a permanent support for any oil painting. Only useful for quick studies in preparation for a final painting on proper support.
  • Cotton duck canvas…fibers are quite short and resistant to stretching. They suffer rapid degradation when subjected to atmospheric stresses, especially when the fabric made from them is stretched tightly on a frame…[and] show an easily perceptible color change after relatively little exposure to light – less than ten years.” (p. 41)
  • Linen also has many drawbacks. Lots of artists use it anyway, based on the false belief that, because it’s somewhat better than cotton, it is therefore the best. Over time, collectors have been “educated” to believe that linen is the only proper choice, as well. Many would be surprised to find that “…studies on the mechanical properties of linen and cotton when combined with sizes and primings show them both to be equally poor supports for oil painting.” If used, linen must be properly supported by “an auxiliary system and used with the right kind of paint“. (p.42)
  • Other natural fabrics like burlap, jute, and hemp generally deteriorate very quickly and are not considered suitable. If you like painting on a highly textured support, a rough linen would be a better choice.
  • Believe it or not, polyester fabric (made for artist use) is actually a very good alternative (dare I say “superior”?) to cotton and linen because it is non-absorbent and does not react to atmospheric humidity. The polyester yarn is also stronger than either cotton or linen and is stable at normal temperatures. Fredrix (Tara Art Materials) makes a couple of polyester canvases; one called Polyflax that is 100% polyester and another that is a mix of polyester and cotton in the yarn. Both come pre-primed with a “universal” heat-set acrylic dispersion ground (aka acrylic “gesso”, not to be confused with “real”, or traditional gesso) that adheres very tightly to the non-absorbent polyester.
  • Other synthetic fabrics are not considered suitable for oil paintings.

It’s been a long time since I’ve painted on stretched canvas of any flavor, but when I have, polyester has been my most recent choice. Years ago, I did use stretched cotton or (occasionally) linen, but was never impressed by either. In particular, I don’t care for the “bounce” of stretched canvas, and I’ve always sort of fretted about the fact that paintings on stretched canvas can be easily punctured. Both issues are easily avoided by using a solid support. So most of my work in the last few years has been on solid panels. There’s lots more to the subject of building a better painting, so stay tuned.

Next up in Part 2: Sizes and Grounds.

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